Sanjib Sahoo left his small hometown in India as a young man to pursue a career in transforming businesses. It’s a journey that took him across the globe and across industries, ultimately leading him to his current role as the award-winning chief digital officer and executive vice president of Ingram Micro, a $54 billion Fortune 100 company operating in 200 countries.
When we spoke for an episode of the Tech Whisperers podcast, Sahoo opened up about his fascinating leadership path and experiences, the highs and lows, and how he’s persevered by “seeing the opportunity in the possible, not the obstacle in the impossible.” He also discussed the backstory of Ingram Micro Xvantage, the industry-disrupting AI digital experience platform his organization had recently launched, and what it took to go from big, bold vision to launch in just 15 months.
Afterwards, we unpacked more of the skills, thinking, and attributes that have enabled Sahoo to build a remarkable career as a transformative and inspiring technology executive and business leader who consistently creates and delivers tangible value. What follows is that conversation, edited for length and clarity.
Dan Roberts: You advise people to follow the mantra, be your own CEO, and also to have the lens of a ‘chief value officer.’ What do you mean by that, and why is it important?
Sanjib Sahoo: Being your own CEO means taking accountability, holistically, for everything you do. It can be a piece of code. It can be multiple programs. It can be anything. Wake up every morning and think, I am the CEO of this. Do not wait for others for your success. Take accountability, take charge, reduce all obstacles.
When you do that, regardless of your title, your responsibility will keep increasing. If you are a really good ‘CEO’ of A, however small A might be, you will become the CEO of A plus B, and eventually of A plus B plus C. This will take your career higher, but you have to start by doing A well, taking that full accountability, before you can get there.
I believe in taking accountability for actions. Title doesn’t matter. CEOs take action. The results are not always in their hands — the market changes, everything happens — but the best CEOs have a bias for action. Each one of us can be our own CEO, take accountability, take action, and do not wait for the result.
And then, when you put all of this in the lens of a chief value officer to focus everything on value — tangible value, intangible value — that’s when technology is valuable. Because shiny technology without value is completely pointless. Technology keeps changing all the time. We cannot run behind technology. Focus on problem solving and solutions. That’s what being a chief value officer and your own CEO will teach you.
Today, the lines have blurred. Everybody has to be a full-stack professional. So you have to have the emotional and cultural intelligence as well as the business acumen and technology prowess. When you match them all together, you will become a true value-generating CEO. It doesn’t matter what title or scope you have. If you keep doing it every single day, you’ll be tremendously successful.
What’s your secret for communicating the art of the possible and getting a diverse set of stakeholders to take these big journeys with you?
Communication is very important in today’s world of leadership. It has to be situational. You cannot have the same tone of communication in every single meeting or situation. You need to figure out your communication between push and pull. Sometimes you have to push; sometimes you have to pull the spirit out.
I also like to say that you have to communicate with compassion but execute with passion. We need to focus on relentless execution, that is a given. But when you communicate, communicate with compassion: Understand perspectives, use the art of storytelling, focus on why, keep the customer first, understand how you can make your peers successful. Those are all very important, and people will listen to you.
What would you say to someone who’s more introverted and not as comfortable in this area? How can they build up their communication confidence?
I was an introvert. Many years ago, I was too shy to even talk to people. Was I a natural at this? Absolutely not. But it’s all in the mindset. These are taboos within our mind: I am like this. I cannot do this. It’s not possible. That’s where the art of possibility comes in. Don’t focus on limiting your challenges; challenge your limits. Because there’s only one difference between extraordinary people with extraordinary results and ordinary people with ordinary results: mindset.
Leadership used to be all about being perfect. Today, leadership is about being vulnerable. It’s about admitting your mistakes, asking for help, asking for your team to bail you out of situations, collaborating together. That makes you a better leader, to your team, to your peers, because that makes it more real.
So don’t try to be perfect. Try to be practical. Try to be humble. Try to have a perspective. And all of this should be in how you communicate. I believe in leading through your ears more than through your mouth. I learn from listening to people and I learn from employees. Many times, we tell them what to do versus listening and then making a judgment.
What are some of the other skills required to be successful as a top IT leader today?
Number one is clarity of vision and understanding business models. You have to really understand how the business works, how our customers interact, how the company makes money, how to read a balance sheet. Business acumen is extremely important.
You shouldn’t be in your cubicle doing coding or technology only. You need to become a business leader, not only a technology leader. Today, technology is the business. So you need to know how to connect with your stakeholders and your employees, how to disrupt and have the mindset to take some risks, and how to transform your business.
Number two is communication and those emotional intelligence elements, like collaboration and social skills. You have to build relationships. Every company has an informal communication network. The first thing I did here was to understand, what is the informal communication network and who are the influencers in the company that drive change. Build relationships with them. Be friends with them, understand what connects with them. When your communication connects with the heart of employees, that’s how you drive change, not by new cloud technology.
Number three is bias for action. The world is moving at a very high speed. Many times, we have a plan, but we don’t challenge ourselves enough. Having this bias for action and embracing challenges is very important to keep your team driving ahead. Combine this with always focusing on the art of possible versus impossible.
Number four is a balance between pushing and pulling — how much you push your team versus how much you pull. You have to find that fine balance of being pragmatic but also being aggressive.
You also need to be a talent magnet. To do that, you need to have what I call the CxO ‘X factor,’ where you create professional intimacy in a way that gravitates people towards you. They want to work with you and believe in you, trust you. That pull is very important to drive technology digital transformation.
And you should know how to roll up your sleeves and go into the details, because if you cannot do a job, you cannot expect your employees to do it. To earn respect, you need to show them the way and be in the details.
Lastly, always focus on connecting all the dots, keeping the business and customer in mind.
Given how fast things move today, what should technology leaders be doing to make sure their businesses capture new opportunities and stay innovative?
You cannot wait to be transformative. You have to look at opportunity gaps. If you don’t have bias for action — constantly, ongoing — then there’s a risk of disruption. So many companies have disappeared from the Fortune 500 list. What works today will not work tomorrow.
Before, risk was bad. Today, calculated risk is innovation. And calculated risk comes from bias for action. Try out things in small pieces, through that lens of the chief value officer, as I noted earlier. If you fail, you fail fast and then you keep on repeating.
I use the term shrink wrapping for value creation. If you have a lot of time, you can execute a program, but the market might change. So you’re always paranoid about waking up one day to find out somebody has disrupted your business. Either you can live in the paranoia, or you can start disrupting your own business every day. And that is the bias for action. You need to start disrupting your own company, every single day.
For more business and technology leadership insights from Sanjib Sahoo, tune in to the Tech Whisperers Podcast.
CIO, IT Leadership